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Witz: A Novel (American Literature Series) Paperback – May 11, 2010
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"The sort of postmodern epic that arrives like a comet about once every decade, like Infinite Jest or Gravity's Rainbow. Like any epic, it defies summary and overflows with puns, allusions, digressions, authorial sleights of hand and structural gags-in the tradition of Thomas Pynchon, James Joyce, Jonathan Swift and Laurence Sterne." (New York Observer)
“Witz is a brave and artful attempt to explore and explode the limits of the sentence." (New York Times)
From the Author
"In this ambitious novel, Benjamin Israelien―born full grown, bearded, and wearing glasses―is the last living Jew, a national celebrity and Messiah-like great hope for an America terrified of losing God’s grace. In more than eight hundred pages of dense, often self-amused prose, he tours in a big revival show, visits Holocaust sites (“Whateverwitz” in “Polandland”), and even makes a brief sojourn in space with a tentacled alien named Doktor Froid. “Witz,” as Cohen explains, means “joke,” and the novel overflows with puns, allusions, and Borscht Belt zingers, in an incantatory modernist style." (New Yorker)
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This book is NOT an easily digestible novel. I wouldn't even call it a novel. This is nothing like Kurt Vonnegut. It is less easy to follow than Thomas Pynchon. This is not like David Foster Wallace. Calling it a prose poem is more accurate, but it's not poetry in the rhyming sense. It's poetry in the sense that many of the sections of text separated by periods (calling them sentences is generous, since many of them seem to be missing a complete thought and/or a subject-verb-object set) are ambiguous and up for interpretation to the extent that I wasn't even confident I was reading a story.
Maybe it's best to call it a long poem that doesn't rhyme and also doesn't have any particular repetitive syllabic or spatial organization.
After the first page, my interpretation was that this guy was good at stringing together intelligent-sounding sentence fragments with commas, dashes, and semi-colons. He may be good at building beautiful ideas over a period of several pages, but the sentence fragments are so disconnected that it was very difficult for me to synthesize any kind of approximation construct to aid in remembering all of the stuff said or implied in the last few sentences. He uses some words I don't often encounter. After reading the first page, I think a reader would have a very difficult time answering the question "What is happening in the novel right now?"
David Foster Wallace is my favorite author. Certainly, he goes on tangents, but generally they last for a paragraph or so, and I can understand them. With this guy, it seems like every sentence fragment is own tangent, and there are so many of them that I wasn't able to find a cohesive narrative or description buried in the whole. Assuming this work is smart, which a lot of people keep saying it is -- to enjoy this book, I think the following is probably true:
1) You better be really intelligent, because you're going to have to remember a ton of disparate information.
2) You better be patient, because the relevance of this information isn't immediately obvious
3) You better have a lot of time on your hands, because this book is upwards of 800 pages.
I really wanted to like this book, but I couldn't get into it. I'm not very good at reading Thomas Pynchon either. Based on my experience with Thomas Pynchon, having a shot of tequila will probably make the book more palatable. "The Instructions" seems to be a related book with more digestible text.
Expending the energy to tackle an 827 page book takes a leap of faith to be sure. It also takes a few strong nudges. When those nudges come in a trinity one has to take a deep breath and dive in. The triumvirate, all discovered in a morning, started with an excerpt on Ben (Notable American Women) Marcus' website, rapidly followed by noticing a rapturous blurb by Steve (Arc d'X) Erickson and then an intriguing interview by Blake (Scorch Atlas) Butler ([...]).
Marcus, Erickson and Butler are all heroes. They all wallow in language like words are the salt in the Dead Sea. But then a further google uncovered numerous comparisons with David Foster Wallace, Thomas Pynchon, Franz Kafka and James Joyce. Ahem.
And indeed, after several exhausting weeks, I can say that Joshua Cohen joins their ranks with enviable chutzpah. The essential story has been described elsewhere here, so no need to go into that. Suffice it to say I am not one of the Affiliated, but trust me, you don't need to be. Cohen essentially paints with words, creating vast canvases that embrace everything from surrealism to science fiction, from heart-wrenching heartbreak to heart-warming hilarity. Despite the sheer weirdness of structure, there is a clear-cut narrative here, albeit with a moment of cunnilingus that would make David Cronenberg blanch. Cohen has created an alternate universe richer than any in contemporary literature. Steve Erickson, in his blurb for the book, states that "the only question is whether Joshua Cohen's novel is the Ark or the Flood." My question back is, is it feasible that it is both?